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In Texas, 17 new judges bring ‘Black Girl Magic’ to courthouses

This photo provided by the Harris County Democratic Party shows a group of 17 African-American women whom are part of an effort dubbed the “Black Girl Magic” campaign. (Christin Mcqueen / Associated Press)
This photo provided by the Harris County Democratic Party shows a group of 17 African-American women whom are part of an effort dubbed the “Black Girl Magic” campaign. (Christin Mcqueen / Associated Press)
By Deanna Paul Washington Post

Democratic candidates unseated more than 50 incumbent Republican judges in the largest jurisdiction in Texas during last November’s elections.

On Tuesday, the newly elected judiciary for Harris County was sworn in, including the 17 women who were part of the “Black Girl Magic” campaign.

“It’s a brand new day in Harris County!” the local Democratic Party posted Tuesday on social media.

Harris County, which includes Houston, is one of the most diverse counties in the nation, according to Harris County Democratic Party Chairwoman Lillie Schechter.

With a population of more than 4 million, it’s also the third most populous county in the United States.

Schechter called Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony “fitting.” The county “finally has a judiciary that truly reflects the different faces of the people that come before it,” she said in a statement to The Washington Post.

The “Black Girl Magic” campaign – designed, managed and funded by the Harris County Democratic Party – came to fruition after the primary election, once the women were all on the ballot.

“We looked around the room one day and thought: this is something special,” criminal court Judge Erica Hughes said, dubbing it “divine intervention.”

The women then came together, hoping to inspire individuals to vote.

“Most people see our photograph and think, ‘Hmm, that’s not what I was expecting,’ ” Judge Lori Chambers Gray, another Black Girl Magic candidate, told The Post. “You don’t think of African-American women as making up the U.S. judiciary.”

The barriers that may have been in place for women are no longer as prominent, Gray said, adding that the new judges bring knowledge of the law and of the citizenry.

“When you talk about a constitution that truly includes everyone, that’s really important,” she said.

Also among newly sworn-in is Lina Hidalgo, the first Latina and first woman sworn in as Harris County’s chief executive, which is referred to as county judge.

Hidalgo defeated incumbent Republican Ed Emmett, who served as county judge for more than 10 years. The 27-year-old Colombian national voiced the importance of diversity throughout her campaign.

“We made history in Harris County on Nov. 6 by electing a talented group of individuals who reflect the people and communities we serve,” Hidalgo said in a statement released Tuesday.

The demographics in Harris County have shifted dramatically in recent years. According to recent census data, nearly 20 percent of Harris County’s population is African-American, and more than 40 percent is Hispanic.

“You had a judicial bench that did not look like the community,” Judge Dedra Davis said during an interview with The Post. “People who had been there for a long time were basically living in a bubble.” Davis unseated Republican Brent Gamble in the November election after two decades on the bench.

Some Republican members of the judiciary have been critical of the freshmen judges, the Houston Chronicle reported. Many campaigned on changes to criminal justice platforms, causing the judges to worry about lax rulings.

After one Houston juvenile court judge lost his re-election bid, he released some defendants who appeared in his courtroom. Why? “This is obviously what the voters wanted,” an attorney heard him say.

Other ousted judges chimed in, noting the “mental torment” that accompanies their decision-making. Republican Judge Marc Carter, a former Army military intelligence officer, highlighted the emotional toll of serious felony cases.

Hughes, who also has a military background, said her peers bring wide-ranging life and professional experience to the bench.

“It’s something we’re mindful of and ready for,” she said.

The 17 women – who began their four-year terms Wednesday in the county’s civil, criminal, family and probate courts – were part of a broader Democratic Party success in Harris County.

According to Schechter, of the 75 elected Harris County judgeships, all but one opening unseated a Republican. Several Democratic candidates also defeated incumbents for top county leadership positions, as well as state representative and congressional seats.

The county clerk’s office recorded November voter turnout at its highest for a nonpresidential election. Democratic early voting surged statewide, too.

While the party had successes locally, statewide race went to Republicans. Texas voters narrowly re-elected incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz over Beto O’Rourke, but incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott won re-election by a wide margin.

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